Engage Cuba Launches Arkansas Council, Calls for End to Trade Restrictions

Arkansas Business

By: Sarah Campbell

Engage Cuba President James Williams said Monday that Cuba would pledge to buy a significant amount of rice from the U.S. should the Congress allow trade on credit between the countries.

Williams spoke during a news conference at the Capital Hotel in Little Rock to launch an "Engage Cuba" state council in Arkansas. The 37-member Arkansas State Council is a group of agribusiness, community and academic leaders committed to engaging Cuba through diplomacy and trade.

"Engage Cuba" is a bipartisan coalition of private companies and organizations lobbying legislators to end the trade embargo and travel ban on Cuba. The restrictions prevent American tourists from visiting the country and require Cuba buy American products with cash and pay for them in advance.

Arkansas is the fifth Engage Cuba state council; others are in Minnesota, Ohio, Louisiana and Tennessee.

On Monday, Williams said that the group is finalizing a memorandum of understanding over future rice purchases between the island's government and USA Rice, the nonprofit that advocates for the country's rice industry.

According to Williams, the agreement states that, when credit terms are available, Cuba will buy a significant amount of product from USA Rice. He said specifics would be worked out when rice is sold after the embargo is lifted.

"It's a really nice step forward," Williams said. "It's really new, had never been done before, and so we're thrilled to see it happen here."

Williams couldn't offer an estimate of the economic impact lifting the embargo would have on Arkansas. But he said Cuba is spending $2 billion a year on agricultural imports, and the United States' market share is about 10 percent.

Williams estimates are that, if the embargo is lifted and credit terms are offered, the U.S. market share would increase to between 60 and 80 percent.

Cuba spends about $300 million a year on rice, and 25 percent of what the country receives in agricultural imports is soy, Williams said.

"Between soy and rice, you're looking at $500 million of opportunity for U.S. ag producers," he said. "Given that Arkansas is 50 percent of U.S. rice, we're talking about a $150 million opportunity every year, just proportionally. 

"But, realistically, it's much bigger than that because we're looking at about over $5 billion a year in trade with Cuba if we lifted the embargo."

According to an Engage Cuba news release, Arkansas industries could also gain 11 million customers. Its top exports — rice, soybeans and corn — are the most in-demand products in Cuba.

Williams said lifting the embargo would bring jobs and, if the travel ban is lifted, Cuba could see 2 million to 4 million American tourists, which would increase the country's demand for agricultural imports.

Williams said 70 to 80 percent of Americans support a new approach with Cuba, and the state councils have been launched to amplify their voices so that Congress takes notice.

Arkansas is ground zero, he said, with Gov. Asa Hutchinson, U.S. Sen. John Boozman and U.S. Rep. Rick Crawford helping lead the effort to lift the embargo and ban. 

In November, the Republican governor wrote a letter to congressional leaders urging lawmakers to allow "flexibility in credit extension" to Cuba as it re-establishes relations with the U.S. The letter wrote in support of legislation by Boozman and Crawford that would provide credit extension for American businesses wanting to do business with those on the island.

Hutchinson's letter cames a little more than a month after the governor concluded an economic development trip to Cuba. It was the first time a sitting U.S. governor traveled to the country since the embargo.

Crawford plans to travel to Cuba later this week.

Williams called Cuba a "natural market" and lamented that the country is buying rice from Vietnam and other competitors because of the embargo.

Dow Brantley, chairman of USA Rice and the Arkansas Rice Federation, said advocates have been pushing for lifting the embargoes since the 1990s. He said Cuba used to be a top destination for U.S. rice exports.

He also said further progress depends on Congressional action.

Juan Lamiguerio Leon, deputy chief of mission for the Cuban Embassy in the United States, said two-way trade is desirable and that the island would enjoy a normal business environment if the embargo were lifted. He also said USA Rice offers high-quality products and that its long-grain variety is a favorite of the Cuban people.

Arkansas Secretary of Agriculture Wes Ward said every economic study conducted shows lifting the ban and embargo would benefit Arkansas more than other states.  

Members of the Engage Cuba Arkansas State Council are:

  • Hope Benedict, Bio-Tech Pharmacal, Inc.
  • Dow Brantley, Chair, USA Rice and Arkansas Rice Federation
  • Donald Bobbitt, President, University of Arkansas System
  • Bruce Burrow, Principal, U.S. Cuba Holdings
  • Wayne Callahan, Senior Advisor, Vestar Capital Partners
  • Mark Cochran, Vice President for Agriculture, University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture
  • Terry Freeman, Consultant; Former President of Bibler Brothers Lumber and Construction
  • David Gairhan, Vice Chair, Arkansas Rice Farmers
  • Tim Graham, President, HUNT Ventures, LLC
  • Derek Haigwood, Arkansas Farmer
  • Burt Hanna, President & CEO, Hanna's Candle Company
  • Gary Heathcott, President, Cuba Media
  • Dan Hendrix, President & CEO, World Trade Center Arkansas
  • Byron Holmes, Chair, USA Rice Nutrition Subcommittee
  • Mark Isbell, Arkansas Rice Farmer
  • Jennifer James, Chair, USA Rice Sustainability Committee
  • Bradley Mannis, President & CEO, Mannco Environmental Services, Inc
  • Todd Martin, Executive Director & CEO, Independent Professional Seed Association
  • Kevin McGilton, Rice Miller, Riceland Foods
  • DeAnn McGrew, Director, Agriculture & Volunteer Programs, Winrock International
  • Randy McNeil, President, Poinsett Rice & Grain
  • Mark Middleton, Principal, U.S. Cuba Holdings
  • Robert Moery, Agriculture Liaison, Governor Asa Hutchinson
  • Herbert Morales, President, Latin American Business Solutions
  • Ben Noble, Executive Director, Arkansas Rice
  • Steve Orlicek, President, Arkansas Rice Council; Rice Farmer
  • Linus Raines, Vice President, International Events, ATA International
  • Bill Reed, Vice President, Corporate Communications and Public Affairs, Riceland Foods
  • Mike Roberts, Principal, U.S. Cuba Holdings
  • Jeff Rutledge, Arkansas Rice Council
  • Mark Simmons, Chairman, Simmons Foods, Inc. & Affiliates
  • Cameron Smith, President, Cameron Smith & Associates
  • Keith Smith, Founder, Keith Smith Company
  • Chuck Stutte, Bio-Tech Pharmacal, Inc.
  • Johnny Sullivan, Vice President Sales & Marketing, Producers Rice Mill
  • Larry Wallace, Principal, U.S. Cuba Holdings
  • Wes Ward, Arkansas Secretary of Agriculture
  • Melanie Wells, ETW Enterprises, Inc. Shavings & Rice Hulls